Detecting Value Judgements in Painting by Michael Newberry
A few years ago I read the book What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Torres and Kamhi. I was disquieted to read their take on Rand’s definition of art, specifically about the meaning of metaphysical value-judgements. Perhaps the thing that was the most surprising to me was that their perspective on this issue is so much not the way that I experience art; either as a creator or as in appreciation, or how I understand Rand’s meaning. In a sense, their book has been the catalyst for this lecture. I hope to answer them by showing how you can detect metaphysical value-judgments in painting. But, more importantly, I hope to show you how to find and, perhaps, share the artist’s incredible passion that lies just beneath the surface of the paint.
Rand defines art as “the selective re-creation of reality based on an artist’s metaphysical value-judgements.” She states that metaphysical value-judgements are the answers to these types of questions: “Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable? Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair? Does he have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control? Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?” The connection between these questions and painting is anything but self-evident as the authors of What Art Is admit “it is difficult to understand how [these] specific questions Rand poses would pertain to any art form but literature…”
Let’s see if I can show you some paintings that answer those very questions.
Parenthetically, Rand claims that in art criticism one should analyze the artwork without outside considerations (1975, 42). This means that the theme of a painting, for instance, should make its message clear without any prior knowledge of what the painting is about. We have to be like detectives and look for clues within the painting itself. I think it is important that I give some guidelines on how to look for these values in an artwork as they underlie the observations that I will make about the paintings.
Here are some of the guidelines for detecting metaphysical value-judgements in painting.
1. Describe what you see.
2. The canvas is the Universe. Approach each and every artwork as if it is a universe in itself. Simply substitute “universe” for “canvas” and a whole new outlook will become apparent.
a. Look for the size of humanity in relationship to the canvas. This is symbolic of humanity’s importance in the universe: is humanity larger than life or tiny and insignificant?
b. How is humanity placed within this universe? At the top, bottom or center?
c. What is the most prominent feature within the canvas/universe and what is the main focus?
d. For non-figurative work, what are the outstanding things and how are they placed in the canvas?
3. What is the relationship of subject or person to their environment? This will tell us how important humanity is in relationship to society or nature.
a. Is there a significant difference of sizes between the setting and the subject?
b. Look for the possible symbolism of the objects and/or their relationships. For example, a barrier to freedom symbolized by a chain-link fence. Or, the state buildings are all-powerful above and humanity is crushed below.
c. Is there more emphasis placed on one thing more than another? For example, is there a disregard for the setting and is all the focus on the main figure?
4. Body language.
a. What are people doing? Are they bent, awkward or upright and elegant?
b. Think about the symbolic implications of their posture: are they approaching life as a servant, a thug, or a hero?
c. What are the most notable facial features?
5. Use adjectives to describe the style, color, and light. This is not a substitute for the facts that are represented in the painting, but using adjectives first to describe a general impression helps you find the facts. We are not analyzing whether the means of the painting are good or not, merely trying to get at the mood of the piece, just as how you might describe the weather outside as cheerful or crystal-clear.
a. Is the painting distorted, smeared, vague or is it orderly, in focus, complex?
b. Are the colors murky, dull or vibrant, bold? Are they in harmony or do they clash?
c. Is the light in the painting subdued or brilliant?
d. The symbolism of light and shadow cannot be missed: are the objects or persons dim and the unenlightened? Or are they enlightened by a radiant universe?
“Is the universe intelligible to man, or unintelligible and unknowable?”
In this Vermeer painting, we can clearly see that it is an interior scene with a woman going about the daily chore of pouring milk into a bowl. This scene is loaded with many refined details: the weave of the wicker baskets, the shine of a metal pot (behind her on the wall), the folds of her clothes, and the decorative images painted on the tiles that line the wall. We can even see the spiral of the flow of the milk. The woman is realistically presented with natural anatomy. She is prominent both in size and location. Notice the natural depth within the painting, she feels quite right in-between the table in the foreground and the wall behind her. The colors of things are clean and there are clear differences between the color of her arms and the colors of her clothes. An interesting element is the prominence of the light on the wall behind her, it takes up a third of the painting and it makes its brilliance felt.
Within the borders of this canvas, Vermeer projects a realistic view of people, of things, and he projects the true to life environment of space and light. This painting projects a markedly intelligible view of humanity and its environment.
The universe of this Kandinsky is essentially different from the Vermeer. Here we have abstract objects in fanciful shapes. They may or may not be based on real things, such as mushrooms, birds, bugs, or dolls. But taken literally we cannot know with any certainty what these objects are; we are safer to assume that they aren’t things from reality but are simply abstractions. The colors of green, gold, blue, black, light pink are pure and there are clear distinctions between them. There is very little depth in the painting and though the colors are bright we have no sense that there is any light. The relationship of these abstract objects to one another seems to be arbitrary in the sense that there is a squiggle there, a blob here and we have the idea that they just popped up.
The universe in this painting, though clean and clear and whimsical, is unknowable to us in the normal meaning of the word. Kandinsky projects, quite literally, floating abstractions; abstractions disconnected from an intelligible universe.
“Can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair?”
In this lecture, I have included two landscapes to show how we can detect value-judgements even in paintings without people.
In Rina’s painting, we have a view of a dirt road receding in perspective to a pinkish gray sky on the horizon. On the left there is a chain link fence which encloses some dark trees. On the right there are empty lots. Behind there are some telegraph and electricity poles. Notice the blurring of the images, we don’t have here the crystal-like clarity of either Vermeer or Kandinsky. Notice the colors, mostly variations on gray-browns that convey a luke-warm atmosphere even though it appears to be winter, the trees on the right don’t have leaves or are they dead? Note the that the fence blocks us off from the relatively vital looking trees on the left. This is symbolic, the beauty of nature is off limits.
Imagine that you are really in this place do you think that this road leads to happiness on earth? I think not. Everything in this painting leads to a murky despair.
This landscape by Bierstadt is very different from the previous one. Notice the glowing golden light right-center and how it is flowing along the valley towards us. In contrast to the oppressive warmth of the Rina painting, here we can almost feel the last of the night chill and we can anticipate the heat of the sun’s rays just about to land on our faces. Notice the height of the purple-shadowed mountains, the reflections on the clean water, and the dewy waves of grasses in the meadow.
This is a spectacular view of the start of a new day, obviously a place that holds the promise of happiness.
We are keeping to the same question “can man find happiness on earth, or is he doomed to frustration and despair?” The Scream by Munch is one of my favorite paintings because of its emotive power and how once you see this image it never leaves your memory. But uplifting it is not. Notice how the main figure is at the bottom of the painting/universe and how the bridge is tilting downwards–these both convey the unmistakable feeling of sinking. The background swirls in such a way as to give us the feeling that we are hallucinating, it gives me the sense of vertigo. Again we have these oppressive warm gray colors throughout most of the painting and a toxic looking orange that dominates the sky. Notice that the main character is sexless and has a non-real structure as if its bones were made of rubber. This aspect adds to our unease. This figure seems to be not evil itself, but a witness to some unspeakable horror and it, unfortunately, is being drawn downward towards this vision. It is curious to note that the two figures on the bridge appear fairly normal, it is clear that one is a man the other a woman, and they are walking away from the scene.
This person is not doomed to frustration and despair but, worse, it is simply doomed.
This pastel is a self-portrait and it shows a “man about town” with his powered wig, velvet coat, and his breezy air. Notice the clarity of the eyes and the genuinely good-natured expression of his smile. Incidentally, in the history of art it is really hard to find good smiling portraits; most feel as if the person is grimacing.
This man looks like he is at the height of his powers, he looks at ease, and I think happily content.
“Does he have the power…to choose his goals and achieve them…or is he a helpless plaything of forces beyond his control?”
In Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix notice the woman charging forward with her out thrust arm raising the French flag aloft. Notice her location at the top of the canvas. She is inspiring a rabble of soldiers, dandies, and regular people to carry on even over the obstacles of death, which lie literally at her feet. Though we don’t know whether she and they will achieve their goals, it is startlingly clear that they are not the playthings of destiny, they are acting to fulfill their aims.
On the other side of this volitional issue, we have Goya’s painting of an execution, in which these poor men have been lead like sheep to their slaughter. Notice that in the background that the State buildings are above the scene, the implication is that the state dictates to the humans below. There is a line of faceless universal soldiers, heads bowed, carrying out their orders. The main victim thrusts his arms out in the gesture of “why”. Notice how the light box is turned towards the victims, they are bathed in its sympathetic glow while the soldiers are in the shadow. Also, notice that the color of the lightbox and the main character is identical gold and white, the implication being that he is the light.
Goya paints an empathic portrait of these victims plight but victims they are; hopeless playthings of the mysterious State lurking in the background.
Is man, by nature, to be valued as good, or to be despised as evil?”
Because of the complexity of and controversy over metaphysical value-judgements in painting I have used the most obvious examples I could find that would illustrate clearly how Rand’s questions relate to paintings. This example of Rosseau’s landscape, though, is not obvious. The most prominent feature here is the road, it is placed front and center and it leads into a picturesque old-world village, which is a cluster of very neat cottages with thatched roofs that extend across the width of the canvas. Notice the elaborate detail that is showered on the vegetation and the trees and how light plays upon them. The blue sky is aglow. In the center of the road is a curious figure, very small, which I think is a young girl. Notice that she appears to be waiting and she is in the shadow of the tree.
The symbolism here is very interesting. Humanity is significant in the sense that it is in the center of the universe, but humanity is very small. And that small humanity is not bathed in light but finds itself passively standing in the shadow while nature and community are bathed in light. This painting does not convey that man is to be valued as good or bad but merely small and unenlightened.
This painting by Bacon is a free interpretation of a famous Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. Central to the painting is the Pope screaming in blind terror as he sits in a neon yellow colored chair. Notice his claw-like hands; in both in size and shape they resemble the paws of a monkey. The paint looks like it as been stripped in acid. He looks like he is being executed in an electric chair. Notice how his screaming mouth has bared teeth.
This figure does not inspire our sympathy as do the victims in the Goya painting, the empty eye sockets and the teeth bared in a howl are the clues that tell us that this man is filled with hatred. The painting conveys that humanity is central to the universe, but it is evil.
When shown this image on a ten-foot screen at my lecture, the whole audience groaned. The next day, four people told me that they had nightmares about this painting. Saville’s painting, Branded, is a self-portrait. The oversized woman overwhelms the space of the painting. Her flesh has the rotten coloring of chicken meat that has been left out too long. Incised on her flesh are the words “decorative” and “delicate”. Her head is thrown back in a defensive gesture and her hand thrusts out a fistful of flesh in an angry statement. Notice how small her head is compared to the rest of her.
Humanity, here, is glutinous, stupid, self-mutilating and is deserving of being despised as evil.
The School of Athens is one of the landmark works of the Italian high Renaissance. Raphael played off the idea of portraying some of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers, scientists, and artists by his own contemporaries, such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. It is a masterpiece of visual perspective both in how the buildings are shaped and how the figures get bigger as they are closer to us. Some of the people are loners while others are in small groups. Everyone is either communicating, reading, drawing, or learning. It is an ode to the nature of creativity. Notice the light atmosphere and the harmony of the colors. In the center of the work are two men, one is Plato with his finger pointing upwards towards the heavens and the other is Aristotle gesturing towards earth. The main figure in the forefront leaning on a block of marble is reported to be Michelangelo, he is in a pose of deep concentration.
This painting is an epic depiction of humanity as creators, thinkers, doers, and students. It gives the optimistic view that our horizons are unlimited and that wonderful things await us in the future–that, in essence, the nature of humanity is glorious.
Note: This article was an online transcription of my lecture, Detecting Value Judgements in Art, given at the Ojectivist Center’s Summer Seminar in Johnstown, Pennsylvania on July 2nd, 2001.
List of paintings:
1.Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658-60.
2. Kandinsky, Black Spot I, 1912.
3. Rina, Landscape, c. 2000.
4. Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, c. 1868.
5. Munch, The Scream, 1893.
6. M. De La Tour, Self-portrait Wearing a Jabot, 1751.
7. Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.
8. Goya, The Shootings of May 3rd, 1808, 1814.
9. T. Rousseau, The Village of Becquigny, c. 1860.
10. Bacon, Pope Innocent X, 1953.
11. Saville, Branded, Self-portrait, 1992.
12. Raphael, School of Athens, 1510.
Images 1,2,4,5,7,8,9,10, and 12 have been downloaded from http://www.artchive.com. The others were scanned by M. Newberry.